It is time to get ready for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Now that the Leafs are a playoff team, Toronto’s scouting staff must work a little bit harder to acquire top talent at the amateur level.
These rankings will provide a 200-word profile on each player in the top 31. Today’s is the first of three parts.
This draft is weaker at the top compared to previous seasons, as there is no superstar on the same level as Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, or Patrik Laine. Nevertheless, the projected top two picks still project to be first line centres on most teams, and there are bound to be a couple of strong options on the board for the Leafs at #17.
These rankings will be tiered, as there is a bit of a drop off after #2, #11, and #19. I typically prioritize skating, puck carrying, and offensive upside, but we will also discuss how players project from both a defensive and possession standpoint. Rankings are based on a mix of live viewings, statistical analysis, highlights, and opinions of trusted scouts.
Without further ado:
Tier One: (1-2)
1) C Nico Hischier - Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
Hischier is an extremely quick and gifted puck carrier with the ability to constantly drive play into the offensive zone. He boasts the best primary points per game mark among draft eligible CHL forwards, and he was a clear standout for Switzerland at the World Juniors. At six feet, he likely lacks the size to be an elite defensive centre, but his speed and competitive nature leads to a solid two-way player with no major flaws.
Hischier is the most offensively dynamic player in this draft, and his creativity and elusiveness makes him a nightmare for opposing defenders. His offensive upside does not rival top picks in previous years, but Hischier boasts the upside to be a respectable #1 centre on most teams. He will be a primary playmaker on an NHL power play, and he is one of the best puck carriers in this class.
Simply put: Hischier is coming off a much better season than Nolan Patrick. He is quicker, a gifted play maker, and less injury prone. It is extremely close at the top, as Patrick’s size advantage could make him the more complete player, but Hischier is simply the safer pick due to Patrick’s down season. This is the closest race at the top in years, and it remains a virtual lock at #1.
2) C Nolan Patrick - Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
This should be a no-brainer for the Flyers at #2, as Patrick and Hischier are the clear top two prospects in this class. Despite Patrick’s down season and injury concerns, he boasts a long track record of success, and his shot makes him a one of the biggest goal scoring threats in this draft class. At 6’2”, he offers more size than Hischier, and this could allow for a more seamless transition into the NHL next season.
Patrick is the most well-rounded player in this draft, as his size and skill will allow him to match up against top competition, and he continues to be a major scoring threat at every level. His puck protection and playmaking skills are well above average in the offensive zone, but Hischier carries an edge in terms of skating and elusiveness.
Since the race is tight at the top, I went with the player who is healthy and coming off a strong season. Patrick’s two way game puts him above a player like Gabriel Vilardi, and there is enough upside here to be a middle of the pack #1 centre. With a long track record of strong play, he still belongs in the top tier alongside Hischier.
Tier Two: (3-5)
3) C Casey Mittelstadt - Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)
The third overall pick is usually a rather obvious decision for me, or at least a choice between two or three top players. Jesse Puljujarvi was the clear #3 on my board last season, and I had Mitchell Marner just above Dylan Strome in 2015. It is unusually tight in the #3-#10 range this year, and there is a valid argument for taking any of these players at third overall.
The team that selects Mittelstadt will be taking a gamble on skill. His defensive play is a bit of a concern, as he is not overly strong in puck battles, and he does not project to be a regular on the penalty kill. However, his hands are exceptionally quick, and there is plenty of offensive upside here given the amount of flash in his game. He can be the primary playmaker on a NHL power play, and he constantly dangles his way through opposing defenders than to his craftiness.
The concern are that he is a bit older, his numbers in the USHL were helped by a high shooting percentage, and that he did most of his damage on the power play this season. Nevertheless, Mittelstadt’s ability to carry the puck and elude defenders is a major positive, and it is tough to go wrong when drafting a highly skilled centre with plenty of offensive upside.
He is a slightly above average skater, and his hands are a clear selling point in tight spaces. He is quick with everything he does, and he gets a slight edge over Owen Tippett largely due to position. However, there is far more risk at #3 than in past years, and I would strongly consider trading down a few spots if the right deal came along.
4) LW/RW Owen Tippett - Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
Owen Tippett is a top-end skater and goal scorer with size. His heavy 6’2” frame could make him a force in puck battles, and he is a shot generation machine. His quick and heavy shot is bound to make him a major threat on an NHL power play, and he scored an impressive 44 goals in just 60 OHL games this season.
He is one of the fastest skaters in this draft class, and he streaks down the wing as an above average puck carrier. He is fairly effective in terms of zone entries as a result, as opposing defenders are forced to respect his speed, size, and plus hands. He is a better shot generator and goal scorer than Vilardi at this stage, and he offers more potential away from the puck than Mittelstadt because of his speed and strength.
I prefer to gamble on strong skaters this early in the draft, and Tippett’s ability to find the back of the net provides him with significant upside as a legitimate first line winger. Tippett belongs anywhere in the #3-6 range, and he was a tad more impressive than Vilardi in the OHL this season.
5) C Gabriel Vilardi - Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Vilardi is just an average skater, and his defensive upside is a bit limited as a result. However, he is great in tight spaces, and his ability to protect the puck provides him with plenty of potential in terms of possession. He is the last person a goalie wants to see coming down on a breakaway, and his patience with the puck allows him to set up scoring chances on a regular basis.
He should be a solid performer on an NHL power play, as his playmaking is a major weapon down low in the offensive zone, and he can get his shot off in a hurry. His plus hands and puck protection abilities allow and him to play a strong cycle game, and he thrives around the net as a result. However, I give Tippett a clear edge in terms of finishing ability and speed, and Mittelstadt an edge in terms of puck carrying and playmaking.
Vilardi led his team in scoring despite missing significant time with an injury, and he is one of the younger players available in this draft class. I generally prefer to take a better skater and shot generator this early in the draft, but his skill level is impressive enough to warrant a high ranking anywhere in the #3-6 range. When you consider his age, he is an intriguing prospect who deserves to be in the conversation as high as #3.
Tier Three: (6-11)
6) LD Miro Heiskanen - HIFK (Liiga)
Heiskanen is a gifted skater who already defends at a high level. He is intelligent, offers decent size at six feet, and displays strong discipline for a shut down defender. He will not “wow you” like Timothy Liljegren or Cale Makar offensively, but he remains a strong puck mover from the backend, and there is enough offensive skill to become an asset on a NHL power play.
Heiskanen’s stock rose considerably following a strong U-18 tournament, and his two-way game is his calling card. He is already a dependable defender in a professional league, and there is top pairing upside here thanks to his well-rounded game. He is a bit shorter than Noah Hanifin, but I see some similarities here because of his mobility and defensive potential.
While Heiskanen deserves serious recognition after such a strong performance at the U-18 tournament, both Timothy Liljegren and Cale Makar are in the same tier because of their offensive edge. There is plenty of upside here because of his potential to log major minutes and shut down top forwards, but I see far less risk involved in taking one of the most offensively gifted forwards ahead of him in this draft.
7) RD Timothy Liljegren - Rogle (SHL)
He ranked second on most lists to begin the season, and a battle with mono certainly did not help his performance in the early going. However, he remains one of the best skaters and puck carriers in this draft class, and there is just so much upside here given his offensive skill set.
Liljegren takes plenty of risks, and while there will surely be some frustrations along his development path, it is tough to pass on such an impressive skater. His ability to spin away and elude pressure is incredibly impressive, and he is an ideal power play quarterback thanks to his ability to gain the offensive zone. I tend to prioritize skating and puck carrying, and Liljegren simply amazes at times in these areas.
His defensive question marks and mediocre season keep him out of the top five, but all the tools are here to be a valuable defenceman at the NHL level. Ranking Liljegren anywhere between #6-9 is reasonable to me, but any later and you are underestimating his offensive upside. Still, there is a bit more risk here compared to the other top 10 picks, and this needs to be considered as part of the equation.
8) RW Eeli Tolvanen - Sioux City Musketeers (USHL)
The knock on Tolvanen is his strength, as he is a slightly undersized winger who struggles at times in his own end. He is best suited with linemates who can carry the way in terms of possession, but his shot and quickness makes him an incredible goal scoring threat. He is the best finisher in this draft class, and he is bound to rack up plenty of power play goals thanks to his shot.
Tolvanen’s quickness allows him to constantly carry the puck into shooting lanes, and his ability to generate shot attempts is outstanding. He continues to be a major standout at international events, and while he is not as well-rounded as the players ahead of him, he is one of the safest bets to score.
He could slide out of the top 10 on draft day, but this will look like a mistake in a few years. I see him as a great fit on a team like the Panthers, Kings, or Hurricanes, as he would be a perfect match next to a centre who can dominate in terms of possession. Tolvanen outplayed Heiskanen while they were on the same team at several International events, and that puts them awfully close on these rankings. For more information on Tolvanen, I profiled him here.
9) RD Cale Makar - Brooks Bandits (AJHL)
Makar is tough to evaluate, as he is one of the older prospects available in this class and he is playing a lower level of hockey. He is a little bit tougher to project as a result, and there is always a bit of risk involved when selecting a slightly undersized defender. Nevertheless, Makar’s skating and puck carrying provide him with the potential to develop into the best defenceman in this draft, and he belongs anywhere in the #5-10 range.
He is terrific at carrying the puck and weaving in and out of high traffic areas, and his patience with the puck will make him an asset on a NHL power play. He is quick and skilled enough to consistently drive play into the offensive zone, and he is highly effective at creating successful zone exits. His elusiveness, lateral mobility, and intelligence provide him with first pairing upside.
I expect Makar to be a major contributor for Canada at the upcoming World Juniors, and finding a top end right-shooting defenceman is next to impossible these days. His strength and intelligence give him an edge over Liljegren defensively, but he still comes with a bit more risk due to his level of competition. Nevertheless, this is a highly talented defender who firmly belongs in the conversation as best defenceman in this class.
10) C Cody Glass - Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
Glass put up 94 points in just 69 WHL games this season, leading his team in scoring by a double digit margin as a 17 year old. At 6’2”, size is not a concern here, and every team could use a potential 50-65 point scorer up the middle. These factors, along with his puck carrying and playmaking in the offensive zone, make him a top 10 prospect.
Glass is a good but not excellent skater, and he remains a well-rounded player with no major flaws. He is intelligent, protects the puck well in the offensive zone, and his high skill level allows him to make the most of his chances. The gap between #3-#10 is not overly wide this year, and he looks to be a strong pick as a potential 2nd line centre.
He does not “wow me” as much as the players above him, but he remains a solid player due to his overall game. He plays a well-rounded game with no clear flaws, but I am not sure if there is a clear standout tool here that makes him a potential game breaker. Both Makar and Liljregren offer a bit more upside as potential top pairing defenders, while the forwards ahead of him offer longer track records as offensively dynamic forwards.